By: Dario Cristiani
Faced with a range of potential threats, Algeria is one of the countries most concerned with developments in Libya. Close adherence to a doctrine of non-interference has limited Algeria’s role in its neighbor’s affairs. However, when Fayez al-Sarraj, the president of Libya’s Government of National Accord (GNA), paid a two-day visit to Algeria in October, Algiers concerns regarding Libya were strongly evident – chiefly the threat from Islamic State (IS), the potential for Libya to once again become a stronghold for al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and regional relations with Egypt and Morocco.
On his arrival, Sarraj was welcomed by Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal; Abdelkader Messahel, Algeria’s minister for Maghreb affairs, the African Union and Arab League; and Noureddine Bedoui, the minister for the interior and local government (Algérie Presse Service, October 4). The presence of Sellal and Bedoui is an indication of what Algeria’s priorities are in regards to Libya.
Sarraj also met Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika. The two reportedly discussed the situation in Libya and what Sarraj termed “Algeria’s unfailing support to Libya in this challenging context.” Moreover, the Libyan GNA president also highlighted the long-standing brotherly relations between the two countries, saying both were keen to obtain greater international support for their anti-terrorism efforts (Algérie Presse Service, October 4).
Algiers has long been committed to a doctrine of non-interference and as such has been unwilling to support any external military intervention in Libya. The Algerian authorities have, over the past few years, shown a degree of flexibility in the application of this principle – for instance during the French-led intervention in Mali, or in tackling security problems in Tunisia (El Watan, August 4, 2014). But in general, Algeria is unwilling to intervene in the internal affairs of other countries, even when its own security is under threat. As a consequence, where Libya is concerned, Algeria has remained committed to a political and negotiated solution, does not advocate military force and disapproves of other countries dictating Libya’s political agenda. Algeria remains broadly committed to supporting the GNA. While the GNA may be feeble and has done little to strengthen its legitimacy in the eyes of many Libyans, the political methodology underlying its establishment – a negotiated outcome aimed at putting together different geographical and political sensibilities – fits with Algiers’ foreign policy principles.
Nonetheless, Algeria is concerned about “spillover” from its neighbor. Sharing an almost 1,000 kilometer-long border, instability in Libya can quickly spread to Algeria, and Algiers is particularly concerned about the potential infiltration of Islamic State (IS) fighters. The IS defeat in Sirte, the group’s Libyan stronghold, is expected to have a knock-on effect on regional security (Reuters, October 4). Although the defeat in Sirte is a major symbolic blow to the organization, it is not the end of the IS presence in Libya. Many fighters have escaped to the western and southern parts of the country and may launch isolated guerrilla attacks, either in Libya or neighboring countries.
Wider regional security dynamics have contributed to Algeria’s concerns. As the Iraqi government moves ahead with its military offensive to retake Mosul, Algerian commentators have expressed their fears that IS fighters will leave Iraq and head to Libya, strengthening the IS presence there (L’Expression, October 20).
A second problem for Algeria is that Libya could again become a logistics platform for al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Indeed, IS does not represent the only terrorist threat for Algeria, nor is it, if analyzed historically, the most significant. For Algeria, AQIM still represents the most critical security threat to the country, although the group is now much weaker than it was a few years ago.
Even though many AQIM fighters have left Algeria over the past few years, the organization maintains a presence there – in October Algerian security forces killed Djamel Hanneb, a close associate of AQIM leader Abdelmalek Droukdel (Jeune Afrique, October 7).
AQIM has shifted its geographical focus over the past few years, and its regional rivalry with IS has pushed the organization to search for new jihadist “opportunities” in West Africa and the Sahel, launching a number of terrorist attacks in response to IS’ increasingly prominent role in North Africa (Terrorism Monitor, March 3). In this context, the weakening of IS in Libya represents a strategic opportunity for AQIM to return to the country, perhaps even re-establishing what was a significant presence in the immediate aftermath of the Libyan revolution. Algeria considers AQIM’s presence in Libya a major threat. The In Amenas attack – to date the worst terrorist attack against the oil and gas industry in Algeria’s history – is a powerful reminder of the potential threat. Mokhtar Belmokhtar and his group entered Algeria from Libya, and had planned and organized the attack while in the country (Terrorism Monitor, January 25, 2013).
The third element of concern is the trafficking of weapons. While Libya has turned, more generally, into a regional hub for illicit goods – from narcotics and counterfeit medicines to cars and people – it is also a major regional hub for black market weapons (Reuters, March 10, 2014). Small arms, coming from the Sahel and Sudan, enter Algeria and find their way into the hands of terrorist cells and criminal gangs in southern Algeria. In addition, heavy weapons, such as missiles, enter Algeria from Libya, as the security authorities discovered when they seized a consignment in El Oued that included missiles (Jeune Afrique, September 22). In many cases, these trafficking operations are managed by regional jihadist organizations, an indication of the hybrid nature of these groups.
Looking Further Afield
Another significant element is the impact Libya’s security crisis may have on neighboring Tunisia. Tunisia’s stability is particularly important to Algeria, for security and economic reasons. The IS presence in Libya has had a direct impact on Tunisian security, with the three terrorist attacks that the country suffered in 2015 a demonstration of this dynamic.
Although Tunisia’s new institutions have proven resilient to the threat, the security situation has had an adverse impact on the country’s economy and increased the frustration of many citizens towards the authorities. If exacerbated, these problems might pose a threat to the Tunisian state, a development that Algeria would prefer to avoid and, with Algerians becoming one of the most important sources of Tunisian tourism, attacks on Tunisian tourist destinations represent a direct threat to the safety of Algerian citizens (Huffington Post Maghreb, August 5; Jeune Afrique, August 13, 2015).
Given its lack of political will to interfere directly, Algeria has intervened in other ways to strengthen its security vis-a-vis Libya’s increasing instability, primarily by increasing the capacity of its security forces on the borders (Tout sur l’Algérie, March 10). The Algerian army now deploys South-African Seeker drones and Beechcraft 1900 planes for reconnaissance missions, and it uses sophisticated military night-vision goggles (Jeune Afrique, September 22). In addition, in June 2016, Algeria announced the purchase of three Gulfstream G550 aircraft, which can carry out longer surveillance missions (MenaDefense, June 16).
Algeria has also started to build a fence along its border with Libya and Tunisia, and it is doing the same on the frontier with Morocco (Tout sur l’Algérie, August 31). However, the need to strengthen and invest additional resources in security comes at a time of deep economic crisis for Algeria, with the country struggling as a result of weakening oil prices and the lasting impact of the shale revolution (El Watan, October 19). The re-emergence of a number of other oil-producing countries – Iran, as well as Libya itself – on the international market is likely to have a further negative impact on Algeria’s public finances.
Domestic economic problems represent a key risk to Algeria’s stability in the coming years (Tout sur l’Algérie, January 23). This is particularly so given the country’ relatively complicated transition period, but it will also affect Algeria’s capacity to deal with the threat emanating from Libya (Terrorism Monitor, May 2, 2014).
North African Relations and the Libyan Conflict
Libya’s instability has a significant regional dimension that affects the international relations of Mediterranean Africa. This is particularly important for Algeria, as Libya’s problems have a direct impact on Algeria’s relations with two of its principal regional rivals – Egypt and Morocco.
Of the two, Egypt is by far the more involved in Libyan issues. Egypt remains the most important regional and international ally of General Khalifa Haftar, the Libyan National Army (LNA) chief, and has often expressed views that diverge from those of Algeria regarding the crisis (Terrorism Monitor, June 26, 2014). Haftar recently gave a lengthy interview to al-Ahram, which was a de facto public endorsement for Haftar by the Egyptian government given the importance of the newspaper. In the interview, Haftar praised Egypt and other countries, such as Russia and China, for the support they have provided him (Al-Ahram, September 19). In addition, he stressed that France is increasingly cooperating with him in the wake of the November 2015 Paris attacks.
Haftar’s is trying to present himself as the anti-IS bastion in Libya, despite the fact that the burden of the Sirte offensive was left on the shoulders of militias from Misrata, who are among the fiercest enemies of the general. While Haftar remains a divisive figure in Libya, many Western countries, despite their formal support for the GNA, are silently shifting towards him. Following the election of Donald Trump, many in Libya – perceiving the incoming U.S. president to be strongly anti-Islamist – see an opportunity for Haftar to further strengthen his political role (Reuters, November 10). That dynamic could become part of a wider regional realignment based on deepening relations with Abdel Fatah al-Sisi’s Egypt (Il Foglio [Rome], November 10).
For Egypt, the “problem of Libya” is not simply the direct security risk. Egypt has a much wider range of interests in Libya, going well beyond the current conflict and instability. Egypt has historically seen eastern Libya as its immediate backyard, and tribal and transnational links remain unyielding. Cyrenaica’s culture and society remain very much oriented towards its eastern neighbor, and this has nurtured a sentiment of alienation from the rest of Libya that has in many cases fueled irredentist sentiment.
Moreover, Egypt has significant economic interests in Libya. Before the outbreak of the revolution, about two million Egyptians were working there, and their remittances were essential to sustain the livelihoods of many Egyptian families. The number of Egyptian expatriate workers in Libya is still significant, but has declined to 700,000. Greater stability in Libya would bring a number of immediate benefits to the Egyptian economy, mostly through bolstering opportunities for the Egyptian labor force in Libya, new opportunities for Egyptian investors and reciprocal Libyan investment in Egypt (Al Ahram Online, July 29). This is of particular significance for Egypt as an economic downturn at home is a potential threat to the political stability of Sisi’s regime (Al-Arabiya, October 4; Middle East Eye, October 19; Al Ahram Online, October 15).
While Morocco does not share a direct border with Libya and its immediate security is not threatened to the same extent as Algeria or Egypt, the country still has some significant interests in Libya and this has pushed the kingdom to play a more assertive diplomatic role.
Morocco also derives some strategic benefit from Algeria’s concerns over Libya. An unstable Libya pushes Algeria to devote more resources to controlling its eastern border, reducing any Algerian threat to Morocco.
As Algeria started to play a more assertive diplomatic role in bringing different Libyan factions to the negotiating table, Morocco also pushed to have a role as a broker (Jeune Afrique, March 9, 2015). The move is a part of the wider Moroccan process of avoiding regional geopolitical marginalization and countering Algerian influence. It meant, however, that negotiations developed along two different tracks, one in Algiers and one in Skhirat, a small seaside town between Rabat and Casablanca. The GNA agreement was struck in Skhirat – a success for Morocco – but the duplication of the negotiations reduced their effectiveness (Maroc.ma, July 12, 2015).
Nonetheless, Rabat is one of the strategic pillars of the Western strategies in the region, and the United States and many European countries view its presence as a diplomatic broker positively. Algeria, on the other hand, sees Moroccan interference not only as a geopolitical issue, but a further problem preventing a resolution of the Libyan conflict.
Morocco sees the Libyan issue as a part of broader geopolitical competition with Algeria over the Sahara and the Sahel. While the problems emanating from these areas represent a common threat for both countries, the zero-sum vision that still informs Algerian-Moroccan relations prevents the two from cooperating more closely.
Algeria is a key actor in the wider Mediterranean African political dynamics with genuine concerns about Libya. Its role in regard to its neighbor will continue to be significant. However, given its traditional doctrinal principle of non-interference – one of the most enduring legacies of its anti-colonial struggle – that role is unlikely to entail direct military action on Libyan soil.
Instead Algeria will stick to its traditional doctrinal principle of non-interference in international politics, while stepping up efforts to strengthen border security and acting as a facilitator to bring Libyan factions to the same table. For this reason, Algeria remains skeptical of General Haftar and his rise as a potential new strongman in Libya. It is concerned that, while Haftar may be able to alleviate problems in the short-term, he is likely to polarize the country further, creating the conditions for new waves of instability.
That puts Algeria at odds with Egypt, one of the regional powers most involved in Libya and possibly Haftar’s most vocal supporter. It also leaves Algeria potentially isolated as Western powers soften their views toward Libya in general. Meanwhile, traditionally poor relations with Morocco hinder greater cooperation with Rabat, despite points of diplomatic alignment on Libya.